Saturday, December 31, 2016
Heavy naval gunfire helped the Western Allies get onshore and pushed the Germans back from the landing zone perimeters. But Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS troops quickly contained and isolated the widely separate beachheads. Just as rapidly, they disarmed the Italian Army across Italy and the Balkans. In several locales, Germans butchered their erstwhile allies by the hundreds, and even thousands. On the island of Cephalonia, for instance, nearly 5,000 Italian officers and men were executed after offering resistance to the Germans. Within a short time, 650,000 Italian prisoners were entrained for the Reich to work in forced labor camps; some 200,000 died there. Meanwhile, German units moved south to defend a series of fortified lines thrown across the paths that must be taken by the enemy armies as they moved north. The lodgement at Salerno came under brisk attack from German 10th Army as Field Marshal Albert Kesselring reinforced and attacked much faster than the deleterious Clark. A major effort to crush the lodgement was made by the Germans on September 12. The situation was recovered for the defenders only by a desperate drop of two battalions of U.S. 82nd Airborne, in combination with concentrated naval and air bombardments. German 10th Army began a phased pullback on September 16, enabling the Americans at Salerno to finally link with British 8th Army.
Hitler had been skeptical about defending south-central Italy. Now he reversed course and told Kesselring to hold south of Rome at all costs, along a hastily constructed set of defensive works dubbed the Bernhardt Line. Kesselring bloodied the Allies, then fell back to a stronger position at the Gustav Line. This strategy took full advantage of the fact that Italy was crossed by rivers on either side of the Apennines. The river positions were well-defended by the Germans and had to be crossed under fi re by Allied troops in terrible and costly small boat assaults. The Italian campaign thus played out as a series of brutal, unimaginative frontal assaults on a series of Wehrmacht fortified lines and river positions. As soon as German defenses looked ready to crack, but just before they did, Kesselring pulled back to a fresh set of lines already prepared to his rear. That essential pattern marked the fighting until the end of the war, which did not come in Italy until just a few days before fighting ended in Germany. Four major and bloody battles were thus fought from January 1944, before the Germans were finally driven from their position atop and around Monte Casino on May 18. Each was more like a World War I trench fight than the swift armored advances both sides had seen in the desert campaign or later in France and Germany.
The main exception to the pattern of bloody frontal attrition in Italy was the daring but poorly planned and executed landing at Anzio on January 22, 1944. That amphibious operation was carried out in an attempt to use superior sea power to outflank Kesselring and cut off and kill his armies in a north Italian Kessel . However, the assault troops took too long to expand the Anzio beachhead. They thereby tossed away the advantage of operational surprise, a fact that nearly allowed Kesselring to crush the landing zone and throw them back into the sea. Only superior air power and precise intelligence, gathered through air recce and ULTRA intercepts, enabled the Anzio defenders to blunt a major German counteroffensive from February 16–20. Hard fighting continued along a slowly expanding perimeter until late May, when 6th Corps at Anzio finally linked with 2nd Corps of 5th Army and a broad American advance began. Clark’s 5th Army was part of Allied 15th Army Group led by Field Marshal Harold Alexander . But Clark never really accepted the fact that he was Alexander’s subordinate. Over the course of the campaign Clark lied and disobeyed orders while alternately carping that Montgomery was secretly conspiring to beat him to Rome, or alternately, that Montgomery was not moving fast enough. Clark’s insubordination and frequent command recklessness broke all bounds once he smelled a Roman triumph for himself following the breakout from Anzio. His disobedience culminated in the liberation of Rome on June 4, 1944, but only because he ignored Alexander’s order to cut off and destroy retreating German 10th Army. Instead, Clark took a different road than ordered. That permitted 10th Army to escape north while he personally drove into Rome in the role of conqueror-liberator. History does not record that achievement as decisive. Most historians have judged Clark ever more harshly as time passed, and the cost of his vanity in lives and wasted strategic opportunity became more clear. Clark’s own comment on June 6, 1944, that the D-Day landings would steal his headlines from Rome, speaks volumes on its own.
Some Western commanders were exposed in Italy as incompetent, others as vainglorious. A few were both. However, everyone was impressed by the combat power and fighting quality shown by the Wehrmacht in defense, and by the high level of command skill displayed by Kesselring. The Germans had to fight at a growing material disadvantage, but did so with tenacity. Smaller armies, such as the Canadian Army, Free French, and Polish Army, found lasting moral significance and great pride in blood sacrifices made on the slopes of Cassino and elsewhere in Italy. Some British and French soldiers and many of their officers reacted differently, recalling with bitterness experiences along the Somme and at Ypres during the last war. Most lamented the low command imagination of Clark, the slowness of Montgomery, and lack of closer oversight of subordinates by Alexander. Meanwhile, relations between the British and American armies and among some top officers deteriorated in tandem with a growing gulf between London and Washington over the strategic morass that Italy had become. Arguments that began south of Rome among participants continued for decades after the war among historians. Some viewed the entire campaign as another “Churchillian mistake.” Nigel Hamilton even argued that it approximated a replay of Churchill’s disastrous Dardanelles campaign during the Great War, with Anzio playing the role of Gallipoli. However, Douglas Porch has argued that the North African, Sicilian, and Italian campaigns sponsored by Churchill and the British High Command were all essential preludes to the decisive Normandy campaign in France in 1944.
While U.S. 5th Army was driving to break out of the Anzio perimeter, British 8th Army—with units of Free French, Canadians, Poles, New Zealanders, and others included—drove up the Adriatic coast of Italy, making comparably slow progress against the Hitler Line . There followed two failed American assaults on Monte Cassino. Fresh New Zealand and Polish attacks were complicated rather than helped by preliminary heavy bombing that destroyed the monastery and gave more effective cover to the defending Germans. The Poles finally took the heights, at great cost in casualties. The Germans, too, were nearly broken by the defense of Cassino. The French Expeditionary Corps stormed and broke the Hitler Line simultaneously with the Anzio breakout, but Clark’s fixation on Montgomery and Rome robbed the Western powers of the chance to wipe out German 10th Army and race to the Alps. Instead, a hard slog north resumed after Kesselring fell back to an alpine defense line. Western resources were drawn away to Normandy for the OVERLORD invasion in June, then to southern France in August for Operation DRAGOON . As a result of the failure to properly pursue a defeated enemy after the fall of Rome, northern Italy would not be liberated until the end of the war in Europe. By then, Italy had become witness to a civil war among fascisti of the Salò Republic and pro- Allied partisans, replete with massacres and reprisals, mass deportation of Italian Jews and former soldiers, and all the other horrors of Nazi occupation and civil war. From February 1945, Alexander was not even under orders to liberate more Italian territory. His instructions were instead to hold as many German troops as he could in Italy while the conquest of Germany was underway.
The Mediterranean strategy of 1942–1943 and the invasion of Italy that crowned it incurred great costs, but also brought some strategic benefi ts: it compelled Hitler to cancel ZITADELLE and to transfer elite ground and air forces from the Eastern Front. It knocked Italy and its armed forces out of the war. It provided air bases from which to open a new front in the Combined Bomber Offensive and, notably, for successful attacks on the Rumanian oil fields and refineries at Ploesti . In addition, it gave Western ground forces combat experience they lacked and needed before the main invasion and fight in France. But while the Italian campaign ground down the Wehrmacht, it also wore out Allied divisions. By May 1944, there were only 27 German divisions fighting in Italy. At that time, there were 156 Axis divisions on the Eastern Front. Stalin had made it clear before the start of the Italian campaign that he did not approve of an invasion that was never part of the grand strategy agreed by all the Allies. But he tempered that view by November 1943, acknowledging that the war in Italy made a real contribution to the larger war against Germany. He said: “The present action of the Allied armies in the south of Europe do not count as a second front. But they are something like a second front.”
Even if the Mediterranean path might be justified strategically up to mid- 1944, most historians believe it was a misguided and wasteful campaign after the OVERLORD and DRAGOON landings established a true and continuous second front in France. Although the Western Allies reduced their effort in Italy once they got ashore in France, they still incurred many casualties over the final 11 months of the war. It took a bloody campaign to batter and break through the Gothic Line, then to fight into well-defended northern valleys and take the many cities of northern Italy. The last Allied offensive broke through at the Argenta Gap from April 9–19, 1945. Once Western armies also broke the Adige Line, they took just over a week to encircle most remaining German units. Bologna, Ferrara, Genoa, Milan, and Venice were liberated in rapid succession. On April 29, 1945, all German forces in Italy surrendered effective at 1200 hours on May 2. In all, Allied casualties in Italy numbered 312,000. The Germans lost 435,000 men over the course of the Italian campaign, excluding large prisoner totals from the final surrenders.
Suggested Reading: D. Graham and S. Bidwell, Tug of War: The Battle for Italy, 1943–1945 (1986); Richard Lamb, The War in Italy, 1943–1945 (1993).
Wednesday, October 26, 2016
After Mussolini was deposed and Sicily fell, the new Italian government under marshal Pietro Badoglio tried, unsuccessfully, to switch the country’s support from the axis to the allies. The Allies had decided to invade Italy as a means of attacking German-occupied Europe via, in Churchill’s infamous phrase, the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Axis. The attritional slog of a campaign that was to follow would make a mockery of Churchill’s words. Matters might have been different, however, had the Germans not moved so swiftly to take over the entire peninsula and deprive the Allies of any easy progress. The German takeover forced the Allies to reassess all their strategic hopes in the Mediterranean. But the manner in which the Germans conducted it also shone a harsh light on the mentality of senior Wehrmacht commanders as they entered the fifth year of war, and the lengths to which they were prepared to go in order to plug a gap in the Reich’s now beleaguered front lines.
The Germans took over not only Italy itself, but also the Italian-occupied territories of southern Europe. In addition to the mounting pressures they now faced on the battlefronts, then, the German army and the Wehrmacht as a whole now had to take on a greatly magnified occupation commitment in areas that, particularly in the case of Italy’s former Balkan territories, were slipping dangerously from Axis control. They sought to meet this challenge with a baleful mix of divide-and-rule measures and sometimes savage terror. This did nothing to arrest the decline of German control in the Balkans; it did, however, fuel the havoc that was engulfing the region and its civilian population.
In the event of all Italy trying to change sides, the Germans had devised Operation Axis. This was to be a full-scale military takeover of Italy and its southern European territories, intended to secure communication lines, disarm Italian forces and organize the region’s defence against Allied attack. The Badoglio government’s shambolic failure to conceal its negotiations with the Allies prompted the Germans to initiate the operation immediately. The majority of Italian formations at most command levels allowed themselves to be disarmed, and their personnel interned. General Balck, in Italy as acting commander of XIV Panzer Corps, claimed in his memoirs that ‘during the disarmament operation one Italian officer told us that he could only hand over his battery once he had fired it. “Why don’t you aim 50 metres to the right and fire into the air?” He did that and then surrendered his battery. Another battery commander shot himself. His people cried and wailed for him, and started a huge lament. Then they happily dispersed.’ Farcical as this account may seem, such was Balck’s generally balanced post-war judgement of Italian troops’ fighting power that it is unlikely he was concocting such stories. In any case, the majority of Italian formations ‘went quietly’. This was despite the fact that most of the Italian army’s rank-and-file troops, less so its officers, were now thoroughly ill-disposed towards Fascism and the Axis. But on the several occasions when Italian units did refuse to comply with orders to lay down their arms, they were overpowered violently and often without mercy.
Some of the most ruthless treatment the Germans dealt out to the Italians was the work of elite troops that did not belong to the army: Waffen-SS, paratroopers and ‘Brandenburger’ special forces. Many army-led commands acted swiftly and ruthlessly against the Italians, but not murderously. On Corsica in the previously Italian-occupied zone of southern France, for instance, Field Marshal von Rundstedt informed Italian troops that they would be ‘treated as irregulars and shot if after twelve hours they did not give themselves up’. He concentrated their minds further by bringing forward the deadline by two hours, and reminding them that ‘from Turin, the “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” is marching [on your rear]’. At least Rundstedt was giving the Italians an opportunity to surrender. In southeast Europe, and particularly in parts of Greece, the Germans sometimes failed to observe any such niceties.
Responsibility for disarming Italian forces fell to the new commander-in-chief southeast, Field Marshal von Weichs. This new post, which had originally been created in December 1942, invested Weichs with greater powers than standard territorial Wehrmacht commanders. The importance attached to Weichs’s post reflected the particular size of the partisan threat in southeast Europe. In view of this, and of the region’s potential exposure to Allied invasion, the prospect of hundreds of thousands of armed, anti-Axis Italian troops at liberty this was not one that Weichs wished to entertain. When Operation Axis commenced, he ordered that, because Italian forces in southeast Europe had formally agreed to surrender their weapons, any of their troops failing to do so must be punished with all severity.
It was in the Greek islands, also within Weichs’s remit, that the Germans sought to make the most terrifying example of any Italian units that resisted. Such was the strategic position of these islands that the Germans feared the Allies would take them over amid the confusion of an Italian surrender, and threaten the entire German position in the eastern Mediterranean. They thus subjected any resisting Italian soldiers there to particular ferocity in order to deter their comrades from similar actions. In the Dodecanese, the Germans gave the Italians the option of surrendering beforehand. They overcame fierce Italian resistance on Rhodes, but Lieutenant General Ulrich Kleemann, the garrison commander, initially refused to execute captured Italian military personnel. However, his superiors then compelled him to do so. In the Ionian islands, XXII Mountain Corps likewise gave the Italian troops on Corfu the option of surrendering, but the 1st Mountain Division still seems to have shot many Italian soldiers who tried to surrender after the fighting.
Nowhere was German conduct worse than on the Ionian island of Cephalonia. The army units that attacked the Italians there were the 104th Light Division, Fortress Grenadier Battalion 910 and, again, the 1st Mountain Division. On 18 September, the OKW informed Field Marshal von Weichs that, ‘due to the cruel and treacherous conduct on Cephalonia, no prisoners are to be taken’. Two days later, General Löhr got in on the act, re-emphasizing the exceptional nature of the situation and the need for a total lack of consideration. There is no evidence that the German formations attacking the Italians on Cephalonia even made them aware of what awaited them if they did not surrender. The most exhaustive study of the massacres on Cephalonia has concluded that about 2,500 Italian soldiers perished. Some were killed in the initial bombardment and fighting, but the great majority were murdered after being taken prisoner. In some cases the Germans did not even bury the bodies, but weighted them with stones and threw them out to sea.
The 1st Mountain Division and the 104th Light Division had both fought at length in the Yugoslav anti-Partisan campaign; indeed, the 1st Mountain Division had also fought extensively in the east. The ferocity with which the war was waged in both theatres made the soldiers of such divisions more likely to be in full agreement with the ferocity expected of them in Operation Axis. However, some Italian soldiers from the groups that were massacred were able to drag themselves away, wounded, and find the help of the Greek resistance. Moreover, the Germans eventually spared a number of Italian soldiers on Cephalonia, together with medical officers and military priests. None of this, however, detracts from the fact that approaching 2,500 Italian soldiers were massacred after they had surrendered. This death toll comprised by far the biggest portion of the approximately 6,500 Italian soldiers who met this fate, the majority of them in the former Italian occupation zones of Greece and Yugoslavia. Around the same number were killed in the fighting during Operation Axis. Another thirteen thousand drowned when the transport ships they were on either capsized through overloading or were bombed by the Allies.
Although the ruthlessly swift character of Operation Axis was in large part driven by strategic necessity, further influences gave the Germans’ conduct an even sharper edge. There was widespread anger among the military leadership that Germany had been knifed in the back by an erstwhile ally. Italy’s attempt to change sides in 1943 awoke memories of 1914, when Italy had shirked its commitment to the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary before later joining the side of the Allies. General Balck, for instance, bitterly raked over the embers in his memoirs, remarking that ‘for the second time in just a few decades Italy had broken treaty with its allies’ and even appearing to question its future commitment to NATO. It also reinforced the contempt many German officers and soldiers had felt with regard to the Italians since their entry into the current war.
For one thing, although the Italians had frequently inflicted cruel treatment upon the ‘subjects’ of their Balkan empire, still more so upon those of their African colonies, German officials had long regarded Italian imperial aspirations as a bad joke. Major General Edmund Glaise von Horstenau was the Wehrmacht’s official representative to the NDH government. In June 1941, he told Field Marshal Keitel: ‘if this laughable, inflated Italian imperialism is not liquidated during this war or on its conclusion, the war will have had no meaning’. German soldiers themselves often regarded their Italian comrades-in-arms, however unfairly, as lackadaisical, slovenly and unsoldierly. Typical was the view of Unteroffizier Karl R. of the 5th Panzer Division when he described a brush with Italian soldiers in Greece in May 1941: ‘Yesterday we were in Patras. There we saw our first Italian soldiers. Correction – we’ve seen quite a few who had previously been captured. And these Italian types please us even less. A street patrol, for instance, of about eight men with machine guns and so on, was just walking through the streets, larking about, singing arm in arm, a civilian among them. That would be forbidden with us.’
Of course, perceptions such as this helped feed the equally widespread, equally unjustified view that Italian troops were useless in the field. And during Operation Axis, the two German army group commanders in Italy itself – Rommel in the north and Kesselring in the south – issued a joint declaration along similar lines; it maligned the Italian soldiers and officers who opposed German orders to surrender as ‘riff-raff’.
Operation Axis was not about unbridled slaughter, however. For one thing, Rommel and Kesselring were at least giving the Italian troops the opportunity to surrender. In the northern Italian jurisdiction of Rommel’s Army Group B, Italian troops were disarmed more swiftly than they were elsewhere: in ten days, the army group disarmed eighty-two generals, thirteen thousand officers, and over 400,000 NCOs and rank-and-file soldiers. They almost certainly committed criminal executions as well, but on a smaller scale than elsewhere. And knowing Rommel’s aversion to brutal anti-partisan measures, it is perhaps not that surprising that even Waffen-SS units of his army group treated captured partisans as POWs during the weeks following Operation Axis.
On the other hand, the welter of merciless commands directed against Italian soldiers during Operation Axis, including Rommel and Kesselring’s opprobrious talk of ‘riff-raff’, was bound to tap into the wellspring of anti-Italian contempt among many German soldiers. Over the weeks that followed, soldiers’ inhibitions weakened to a point where army divisions feared for their discipline. Thus, on 21 October 1943, for instance, the 16th Panzer Division reported: ‘since the outbreak of hostilities on the Italian peninsula, there are ever more frequent cases of individual soldiers or members of small commands roaming through the land like marauders from the Thirty Years War’. Both Rommel and Kesselring felt compelled to intervene against the wilder excesses.
Thursday, August 4, 2016
Thursday, March 10, 2016
A British Special Boat Squadron Corporal sharpens his knife before a raid in the Aegean, July, 1944
Also known as: formerly Folboat section, 101 Troop, Z Group, M Detachment;
latterly Special Boat Squadron, Special Boat Service
Date Founded: 1 SBS – late 1940; 2 SBS – 14 April 1942
Mission When Founded: To conduct sea-borne sabotage and reconnaissance
Mission During the War: To conduct sea-borne sabotage and reconnaissance
Theatre(s) of Operation: NW Europe, North Africa, Mediterranean, Italy, SE Asia
Headquarters: 1 SBS – Athlit, Palestine; Schooner ‘Tewfik’ moored at Kastellorizon (1943), Zara (present day Zadar, Croatia) (1945);
2 SBS – Lee-on-Solent, Hants (1944)
# of Personnel: 19 all ranks (1 SBS, March 1941), 47 all ranks (2 SBS, March 1942), 180 (December 1943), 72 (June 1944)
The SBS began life as the Folbot section of 8 Commando. Its commanding officer Captain Roger ‘Jumbo’ Courtney had demonstrated the effectiveness of kayak raiding to his superior officers by a series of practical demonstrations against ships in harbour. All the special service Commandos were meant to have a boat section in due course, but only 6 Commando’s 101 Troop was created.
In February 1941, 8 Commando was detached to Layforce being sent to the Middle Eastern theatre. Once in the Mediterranean the Folbot section officially became the Special Boat Section and began training aboard Royal Navy submarines. Operating in two man groups they conducted recces, sabotage raids on high-value communications targets, and agent drops amongst the Mediterranean islands and the Italian coast. Equipment was primitive – unsuitable boats, no radios, improvised torches, no wetsuits or drysuits – but the SBS was resourceful and cunning, and were scoring successes. The SBS was 60 all ranks in size by December 1941; Courtney was promoted to Major and ordered back to Britain to establish a second special boat unit.
The SBS continued raiding, reconnaissance and agent insertions along the North African coast Courtney’s departure as an independent entity, using RN submarines out of Alexandria, and later MTBs. However, the growing success of David Stirling’s SAS drew all of the Middle Eastern raiding forces including the SBS closer to the SAS. After a disastrous raid on Rhodes when only two men returned from 10, the SBS was absorbed into the 1st SAS Regiment in September 1942. The SBS ended up in 1 SAS’s D Squadron together with troops from the Greek Sacred Squadron. 1 SAS was subdivided into two units on David Stirling’s capture in January 1943, and D squadron became the Special Boat Squadron under the command of Major Lord George Jellicoe.
The Special Boat Squadron was divided in three operational detachments (L, M and S) and base group. Each detachment consisted of six fighting patrols of one officer and 12 other ranks. The SBS continued to wear the SAS’s beige beret and wings after the UK-based SAS were forced to wear airborne maroon and wings in 1944. In time training at Athlit (Haifa, Palestine) consisted of weapons familiarisation, boating, swimming, high-speed marching, unarmed combat, parachuting and skiing.
Initial raids on Crete and Sardinia by S and L detachments in support of the Sicily landings were failures. The SBS’s move to the Aegean would prove more successful although the initial deployments saw SBS teams on islands that fell to German occupation after the Italian surrender in September 1943. Unlike regular British formations caught on the islands the SBS were able to withdraw. The SBS were able to escape the fall of Leros in November 1943 unlike the garrison, most escaping to Palestine via Turkey.
The SBS became part of Raiding Forces Middle East in October 1943, and this is where Jellicoe’s men earned their reputation – storming out of the night to shoot up German garrisons, demolish installations and generally cause havoc. The SBS detachments operated in rotation from a secret base which was a large schooner moored off the Turkish coast. Transport to and from the target was courtesy of the Royal Navy or a caïque (1) of the Levant Schooner Flotilla (2). Raiding parties landed by canoe, collapsible Goatley boat, inflatables or sometimes by caïque. The SBS’s raiding kept six German divisions in the Aegean islands when they could have been redeployed to Italy or Europe. The SBS’s biggest and last raid killed or captured the entirety of the 180 strong garrison, 19 caïques and two patrol boats on Simi in July 1944 for two dead and six wounded.
After that the SBS moved to Italy and started operating in the Adriatic. Operations here were not as successful: sea-mines were more prevalent, defences were tougher and the local guerrillas uncooperative. The SBS participated in the German retreat in Greece, but were unable to cut the retreat off but beat it back to the Albanian border. The Greek Royalist/Communist conflict nullified SBS efforts afterwards.
The SBS became the Special Boat Service in early 1945, and was now fighting in the Italian campaign, acting as pathfinders and shock troops to allied Commando assaults. It was at Lake Comacchio that Major Anders Lassen, Military Cross and two Bars, was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross on 8 April 1945 for saving his patrol from heavy machine gun fire. Lake Commachio was the SBS’s last operation of the war; it was preparing for redeployment to the Far East when the war ended.
Major Courtney established 2 SBS on 1 March 1942. 2 SBS absorbed 101 Troop of 6 Commando which had seen action in Norway and reconnaissance of the France coast. From 47 all ranks 2 SBS quickly grew. Recruits underwent a 17-week training course followed by parachute training. Successful recruits wore the green Commando beret, and a “Commando SBS” shoulder title. The first action 2 SBS saw was in Algeria in November 1942, though part of 2 SBS deployed. The remainder stayed in the UK for landing agents in France and reconnaissance. One of 2 SBS’s secret missions was to smuggle American officers ashore for discussions with French commanders before the invasion, and then recced and guided landing forces onto the beaches of Operation TORCH in conjunction with the COPPs as Party Inhuman. A sub-unit of 2 SBS, Z Group remained in theatre raiding and assisting the COPPs.
2 SBS had become simply the Special Boat Section after 1 SBS’s absorption into the 1 SAS Regiment. It raided the German-occupied coasts of Norway and France but these were generally unsuccessful due to sea conditions and stronger coastal defences, and small teams served with RN submarines all over the world. At Mountbatten’s insistence elements of 2 SBS were sent out to India in February 1944 in preparation of operations in Burma. First Z Group was transferred to Ceylon. A, B and C Groups followed shortly afterwards arriving in India. Each SBS operational group consisted of 20 all ranks (4 officers plus 16 other ranks) under the command of a Major. By 1944 equipment and boats had greatly improved, mostly due to the efforts of the RM Boom Patrol Detachment (RMBPD), who effectively created the British combat frogman.
The SBS joined the COPPs, Detachment 385 and the Sea Reconnaissance Unit in the Small Operations Group (SOG) operating in Burma. The SBS saw the end of the war waiting for new operations to be assigned. SBS members who were not “Hostilities Only” personnel were posted back to the UK and transferred to Royal Marines, who would have responsibility for all future amphibious operations. Whatever was left of the SBS became the School of Combined Operations, Beach and Boat Section in 1946.
There were many small boat and amphibious British units in World War II and what they actually did can be confusing. However, they all specialised in specific areas. These can be summarised as follows:
RMBPD – ship attack and harbour sabotage
COPP – beach survey and reconnaissance
SBS – sabotage and reconnaissance above the high-water mark
(1) A caïque is a fishing boat ranging in size from 80 to 20 tons that is used around the Mediterranean. Used by both Axis forces for resupply and Allied for smuggling/raiding purposes. Allied caïques were mostly re-used abandoned ships, fitted with Matilda tank engines for extra stealth and speed.
Caïques were armed with a 20mm cannon forward, Browning MGs on each bow and Vickers K MGs on the quarters. Generally crammed with ammunition, grenades and plastic explosives below decks, the crew of five or six lived on the open deck.
Neutral Turkey allowed Allied craft carrying stores and personnel through its waters; however, caïque skippers carried an emergency supply of gold sovereigns to “divert” local officials’ attention away from their cargoes.
(2) The Levant Schooner Flotilla was formed in 1942 and operated until 1945. Its task was transporting SBS, LRDG, and Greek Sacred Squadron raiding parties in and out of enemy territory, in total secrecy, under cover of darkness. During the day caïques laid up under camouflage netting to avoid aerial patrols. Night time operations required a high level of navigational skill and seamanship, and volunteers from all three British armed services, mostly Royal Navy, crewed the caïques.
Ladd, James – 1978. Commandos and Rangers of World War II. St. Martin’s Press.
Messenger, Charles – 1985. The Commandos 1940-1946. William Kimber.
Parker, John – 2000. Commandos. Headline Book Publishing.
Thompson, Julian – 1998. The Imperial War Book of War behind Enemy Lines. Sidgwick & Jackson.
1943 Beautiful Italian Fleet is Back from Malta
When Roosevelt, Churchill and their military staffs met at Casablanca for a war planning conference (Symbol) in mid-January 1943 they did so believing that a dramatic change had recently taken place in the fortunes of those involved in the global struggle for supremacy. It was not hard to detect that the operational momentum in virtually every theatre of the war had begun swinging from what had been an assertive Axis presence – and in many a dominant position – to one that had the Allies beginning to dictate the pace of the encounters, taking the bold initiatives, or responding far more adequately to Axis interventions than they had been able to do in the past. It was a strange and comforting reality and it led them to think of a time when the Axis threat would not just be contained but actually beaten. At sea and in amphibious operations either ongoing or recently concluded, the sense that the Allies were in the ascendancy could hardly be denied. Their resurgence was one thing, but victory was still a long way off. None of the principal enemy combatants had yet been forced out of the war and enormous problems thrown up by their continued participation in this unremittingly dour conflict still had to be overcome. Casablanca was no more than an opportunity, therefore, for both the American and British leaders and their planning staffs to revise their grand strategy for the year ahead preserving the `Europe First’ principle, but not at the risk of ignoring the war in the Pacific; agreeing upon a concerted campaign to beat the U-boats in 1943 in order to safeguard their supply chain; allowing the invasion of Sicily to take place after the conquest of Tunisia and before the launching of any `Second Front’ invasion of northern France; and planning for the re-conquest of Burma as a step on the road to the relief of the Chinese. It was apparent to everyone present that all of these plans to wear down their enemies were going to take time to mature. As such, Casablanca represented a compromise between what the American and the British service chiefs wanted. Each gained some, but by no means all, of what they wanted out of the eleven-day conference. A general outline was set for the year and an ultimate goal – the unconditional surrender of Germany – but few, if any, present at this gathering were under any illusions about the enormity of the task still before them. Peace was, therefore, unlikely to return to the world any time soon.
As Casablanca had shown, the British remained wedded to knocking the weakest link out of the Axis chain and committed to a furtherance of the campaign in the Mediterranean to bring this about. Unfortunately, the Eighth Army’s success at El Alamein in November 1942 had not led on to the immediate seizure of Tunisia and the sweeping away of Rommel’s Panzerarmee from North Africa. It was clear to all concerned that no attack on any part of Italy could be countenanced until Rommel had been finally defeated and if Bernard Montgomery was to be believed that operation couldn’t even begin in earnest until he had consolidated his own forces in their Libyan redoubt. While Montgomery took stock of the situation and gathered his reinforcements, Rommel made a series of strategic retreats westward to avoid encirclement and defeat and looked to fall back upon an improved military position in Tunisia itself. Ultimate defeat was never really in doubt given the Torch landings on 8 November, but Rommel’s main task was to try to stall the Allied advance for as long as possible. In this way, the Allies would have to delay their invasion of Europe until later in the year – and the later that took place the better it would be from an Axis perspective – as the weather could be relied upon to deteriorate during the autumn and early winter making the whole undertaking much more problematic than it would be if it were undertaken during the height of summer.
As a result, both sides sought to reinforce their positions and disrupt the supply effort for the enemy. Axis attacks on Allied shipping in Algerian waters by a mixed combination of submarines, MTBs and Ju-87s continued in January with the destruction of ten vessels and the damaging of nine more, for the loss of an Italian submarine and a solitary U-boat. For their part, the Allies began the year with an adventurous Latin flourish – sending in a team of specialists on two-man submersibles (`Chariots’) to penetrate the harbour at Palermo and attach limpet mines to some of the Italian ships anchored there. It would be fair to admit that only modest, rather than stunning, success greeted these daring activities. A far more effective response at jolting the Italian psyche was administered by Force K and the British submarines from Malta which hounded the Italian convoys that were still sailing defiantly to and from Tripoli with supplies for Rommel’s retreating forces. Over the course of a fortnight they combined to sink a total of over thirty vessels on this route ranging from steamers and minesweepers to sailing vessels and submarines before Tripoli was finally evacuated on 23 January. Thereafter, a collection of forty-eight Italian destroyers, torpedo boats and corvettes were employed in escorting convoys of retreating Panzerarmee troops from Zuara (Zuwa – rah) and bringing reserve troops to Tunis and Bizerte, as well as evacuating the wounded and the POWs to the island of Marettimo off the coast of Sicily. While their assistance undoubtedly helped the Axis cause, they were unable to stop the Allies from engaging in a continued wave of destruction against this shipping.
While the Atlantic had taken most of Dönitz’s attention in the first quarter of 1943, the situation in the Mediterranean could not be totally ignored even though it was more in the nature of a holding operation rather than a progressive theatre-changing undertaking. After all, the Allies were in North Africa to stay and there was nothing now that Rommel and the Panzerarmee could do about it. They could delay the inevitable by attacking the Allied supply network by submarine and aircraft, but they couldn’t reverse the process as they had been able to do in 1941. Moreover, when these attacks were resorted to in February and March 1943 a low average level of destruction was actually achieved by the Axis forces at an unacceptably high attrition rate. In truth, whatever was thrown at it by the enemy, the British `Inshore Squadron’ largely prevailed, landing 115,137 tons of supplies for the Eighth Army during the month of February alone.
Far more effort was devoted by the Italians to supplying reinforcements for the German and Italian troops that had been forced to retreat from Tripolitania into Tunisia in late January leaving much of their supplies behind them. In order to shore up their position and delay the moment when the Allies could clear North Africa of Axis troops, a series of troop and supply convoys sailed from Sicily to Tunis and Bizerte over the next three months escorted by Italian destroyers, torpedo boats and on occasion by a German submarine-chasing flotilla. All kinds of efforts were made by the Allies from the outset to destroy these convoys, but while a mixture of bombs, mines and torpedoes destroyed forty-nine vessels of various kinds, they were quite unable to put a stop to these sailings. From the Allied perspective, however, once their nemesis, Rommel, had been replaced at the head of the Afrika Korps and had flown out of Sfax for Rome on 9 March, victory was never in doubt. It remained no longer a question of if but purely of when. Even so, it would take another two months to the day for the Allied armies to secure their hard earned victory in Tunisia.
Rommel had left Tunisia in early March. His departure had been taken as a sign that the game was almost up for the Axis forces in North Africa. It soon was. In the Mediterranean the last rites of the Tunisian campaign had been observed from late April onwards with a series of crushing attacks by Allied aircraft and destroyers on the Italian supply convoys. Most of the vessels engaged in making these trips from Sicily to Tunis and Bizerte (a mix of destroyers, torpedo boats and transports) never made it beyond Cape Bon and once an Allied naval blockade had been established by a network of destroyers from Malta and Bone on 7 May, any spectre of replenishment from the Italian mainland was at an end.
Feeling both elation and relief, Churchill, his COS and their planning staffs left for Washington to attend the ninth Anglo-American staff conference. Designated Trident, the conference opened on 12 May and lasted nearly a fortnight. As one might expect, the strategic blueprint thrashed out at the Symbol conference in January was subject to detailed discussion in the light of the latest developments in the war. Churchill led from the front as usual and informed his American hosts that his interpretation of the `Europe First’ commitment was influenced by his genuine belief that the best way to deliver the `Second Front’ against Germany in 1944 was to knock Italy out of the war in 1943.
For him, therefore, Operation Husky (the invasion of Sicily) should not be an end in itself but the springboard for a major attack on the Italian mainland to exploit what he believed was the soft underbelly of the Axis. His proposals, though eloquently presented, failed to convince the American representatives in the audience. They had seen how dislocative the Torch offensive had been both in terms of the diversion of resources from the build up of US forces in the United Kingdom (Bolero) and in the time spent on clearing the Axis troops out of North Africa. This experience had illustrated the problems of investing scarce resources in a subordinate theatre of war. For them the prime focus of the war and the grand strategic vision they remained committed to was the launching of a cross- Channel attack on Germany at the earliest opportunity. They were, therefore, very wary about becoming sucked into a full-scale Italian campaign and other Mediterranean-related adventures, such as an Aegean campaign, which might well end up in retarding rather than advancing the cause of the `Second Front’. After a series of increasingly acrimonious discussions, an eventual compromise strategy was thrashed out that owed much to the influence exerted by General George C. Marshall within the CCOS. This allowed Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander, to do more than merely wrest Sicily from the grasp of the Italians. At this stage, however, it was not known whether the invasion of the mainland would prove to be the springboard that Churchill had envisaged or become an uncomfortable sofa from which all movement was slow and painful. Time would prove that the latter metaphor was far more appropriate than the optimistic notion engendered by the former.
Nineteen mostly British submarines were prowling the Mediterranean, the southern Adriatic and the Aegean. While their tonnage yield was not comparable to the rich harvest once enjoyed by Dönitz’s crews in their `Happy Time’ in the Atlantic, it reflected a larger reality – a growing sense of Allied naval superiority throughout this theatre that could not be denied. This impression was reinforced by a series of heavy air attacks carried out on the Italian naval bases in Sardinia (La Maddalena) and in Sicily (Cagliari) in April and May. Unlike the futility of their repeated bombing campaign against the U-boat bases on the French Atlantic coast, these massed Allied air attacks actually caused some harm to something other than the buildings and infrastructure of the ports and the cities that supported them.
These results encouraged the Allies to pursue the aerial option in preparation for their attack on Pantelleria, the island fortress situated off the northeast coast of Tunisia which had once posed a real military threat to the safety of the Mediterranean convoys and to Malta itself. While no longer cast in that role, the Italian military forces on Pantelleria still needed to be cleared out of the way (Operation Corkscrew) before any concerted attempt was made to invade Sicily (Operation Husky). As was usual in these matters, the island was subject to severe bombardment before any amphibious operation was mounted. Apart from an opening burst administered on the night of 12-13 May by the light cruiser Orion, and five other occasions when a varying combination of light cruisers and destroyers shelled Pantelleria from 31 May to 8 June, Allied aircraft did most of the damage by flying 5,285 sorties over the island and dropping a total of 6,200 bombs on those parts of it that were thought to be of any further military value to the Italians. Once the enemy troops had been softened up by this firestorm, Rear-Admiral Rhoderick McGrigor, on board the Headquarters ship Largs, landed the 1st British Division during the night of 10-11 June. Allied Commander-in-Chief General Dwight D. Eisenhower witnessed the uncontested invasion from the bridge of the light cruiser Aurora and was on hand a few hours later to see Rear-Admiral Gino Pavesi, the Italian C-in-C, surrender Pantelleria to the Allies without any further loss of blood.